Sarah Chen interviewed Professor James Clay Moltz on November 7, 2019.
Please note, these are the personal views of the interviewee and not official statements of the U.S. Navy or the Defense Department.
What is the most notable feature about space policy and politics in Asia?
What is the most notable is the acceleration of space activity in Asia over the past decade or so. Asian countries had not been leaders in space during the Cold War. As their economies have developed rapidly over the course of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, we’ve seen a corresponding acceleration of their activities in space. But Asia’s political environment for space has not evolved correspondingly. You can contrast what is happening in Asia to what is happening in Europe with the European Space Agency. In Europe, all of the major countries are cooperating in organizing missions, sharing technology, and pooling resources to engage in cooperative programs. We don’t see really any of that among the major powers in Asia.
What are the main countries in Asia you see engaging in this environment?
China has developed the largest space program in Asia, if you take into account the number of launches, the number of people involved, and its budget. China is very active across the full spectrum of space activity: civil space (including space science), commercial space (although most companies are in some way controlled by the Chinese government), and also military space.
Another critical Asian space race country is Japan, which has long been the leader in Asian space activities and, in many respects, remains the most sophisticated space power in terms of space science abilities. More recently, Japan has entered into the military space domain. It changed its civil-space-only laws in 2008 after China conducted an anti-satellite test in 2007. This was a major shift and allowed Japan to conduct space activities for national security purposes.
India has long been involved in space as well, but its program had been largely focused on space applications. In other words: how do we improve the Indian economy, and how do we improve the standard of living for the average person? Since the 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test, we are seeing two developments. First, India has stood up an Integrated Space Cell within its armed forces, and it has allocated considerable resources for the development of a military space program, including the conduct of its own anti-satellite test in April 2019. The second area where India has been newly active has been in high-prestige space science. This is an area that India criticized during the 1960s and 1970s. Why would a country spend money on expensive space science programs when there were so many human needs on earth?
But, with the Chinese launch of Shenzhou 5 in 2003, which put the first Chinese astronaut into orbit, India saw the range of space science activities that China was engaged in. This gave China great prestige across the region, and India felt it had to react. Over the last several years, there has been a rapid acceleration in India’s conduct of space science missions aimed at boosting its international prestige. There have been two missions to the moon, one of which failed recently, and a very high profile success in putting an orbiter around Mars in 2014, before China had done so. These are areas where India recognized that it was falling behind and felt duty-bound to catch up. These are the three main players in Asia today, but there are many, many countries active in space.
For example, South Korea and North Korea have both launched satellites into space and there are active space programs in Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. A variety of different countries are working towards different sets of space capabilities, but all of them recognize that space is an area where they need to show competency. Space is linked both to security and defense needs, as well as economic development in terms of helping stimulate their populations to study science and technology. They now recognize that investments in space technologies will have broader spinoff effects in boosting output and creating economic opportunities.
Have you seen a push towards creating an Asian economy in space?
One of the goals of the countries in Asia is to make money in space. We can point to a couple of different technologies that have been at the forefront of this.
China has a semi-private company called the Great Wall Industry Corporation that was founded in 1980. The purpose of this company is to provide launch services to foreign satellite companies in order to generate revenue for the rest of the Chinese space program. Since the early 1980s to 1999, the company was allowed to launch US commercial satellites. But the US Congress, due to fears of Chinese theft of US technology, decided not to ban such launches after the release of the Cox Committee report in 1999. But China does launch for other countries today.
Similarly, India has a very active program of launching satellites for countries and companies. Lately, a number of US companies have been able to acquire waivers from the US government despite the lack of a formal agreement as of yet to launch US commercial satellites on Indian launchers. Companies like Planet in San Francisco have launched dozens of cubesats off of Indian launchers, like the PSLV.
Japan is trying to enter into the space launch field with its small Epsilon launcher, and it has also offered the H-II and other launchers for foreign use. But the prices are quite high, which makes it hard for Japan to break into this market.
Asian countries have also tried to enter into the commercial market for satellite exports. China’s Great Wall Industry Corporation has worked with a number of companies and countries throughout the world to provide low cost access to communication satellites, providing on-orbit satellites and ground stations to Nigeria, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Laos. In addition, South Korea has a very active satellite development and export business through the Satrec Initiative. It has exported satellites into several countries in Southeast Asia and also to Turkey.
There also are reports that China is interested in mining the moon and asteroids. A number of American companies have talked about this as well. Currently, the technology does not exist on a cost-efficient level. There will be an interest in Asia in the space mining area and possibly in on-orbit space manufacturing, but those developments are still a decade or more in the future.
In 2012, you published Asia’s Space Race: National Motivations, Regional Rivalries, and International Risks, which mentioned the lack of cooperation among major Asian countries, their focus on national policy rather than multilateral cooperation, and rivalry in their goals in the space domain. Do you find that these characteristics still hold true now?
The argument that I made in Asia’s Space Race was that, unlike the major space players in Europe, who cooperate extensively, we see very little cooperation in Asia. Countries in Asia are motivated mainly by competitive drives that predate space competition, and lie in various political, historical, cultural, and geopolitical factors that have created deep-seated rivalries for regional power and influence.
In this regard, Japan and China have created two rival organizations for building regional space cooperation. In 1993, Japan created the Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum, which conducts a yearly meeting in the region among space-interested countries and companies, and even a few Chinese organizations participate. But this is largely a Japanese-led initiative, and it has promoted cooperation with Japan in a variety of different areas, although mostly in space science. And, we’ve seen some interesting political developments as a result of this cooperation. For instance, Japan decided to give Vietnam one billion dollars in official development aid to help Vietnam build a national space center and to launch observation satellites.
China also has a space organization that is now called the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, based on a prior body formed in 1992. This version of the organization began in 2008. It differs from the Japanese organization because it requires countries to sign a treaty and pay dues into a bureaucratic structure that organizes China’s cooperation with a number of smaller space countries. Most of these countries don’t have a lot to give to the organization in terms of technology. China mainly provides training and technology to less-developed space powers, such as Pakistan, Mongolia, Thailand, Indonesia, Peru, and Turkey.
India has a similar, but smaller, organization that works with a number of regional countries, particularly to provide education in space science at Indian institutions. It also cooperates with a number of countries in order to launch satellites. So, the major countries in Asia do cooperate quite a bit, but not necessarily with each other.
You’ve quoted defense analyst Richard Bitzinger describing China as a “fast follower.” How would you evaluate Asian countries participating in the space race? Are they innovators or followers and, if the latter, who are they following?
Asian countries have been fast followers. They have been emulating the former Soviet Union and the United States, first, in getting to space, and then, in conducting some of the key milestones in developing their space infrastructures. Major milestones include the first satellite launch to low earth orbit, the first satellite launch to geostationary orbit, the operation of different space technologies (such as for communications and Earth observation), and various scientific milestones as well (such as orbiting Mars or the moon, and perhaps the launch of humans into space).
Despite some innovation, most countries have been copying technological development by the earlier space powers. China has been accused of stealing space technologies from various US companies through industrial espionage. The question that many ask about China is whether it will be able to switch from largely using foreign technology to developing its own technology. The Shenzhou human space flight capsule was originally based on a Russian Soyuz capsule that China purchased from Moscow in the early 1990s, and then reverse-engineered to create a new model. The BeiDou GPS system that China created borrowed extensively from the Galileo system, which China had initially been involved in as a partner.
China’s space program has largely been state-run, state-funded, and state-controlled. One of the questions moving forward as we look at 21st century space dynamics is whether state organizations are going to be as effective as commercial organizations in delivering rapid space technology innovations.
The difference between state-run and more international or commercially led space innovation is addressed in your recent article, “The Changing Dynamics of the Twenty-First Century Space Power.” Could you explain what these models are and which model you see Asian countries falling into?
The concept of “technocracy” in regards to space was first mentioned by Walter McDougall in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. That book made the argument that the dominant paradigm during the Cold War space race had been state development and sponsorship of space programs, including the critical processes involved in space technology development. This was a “top-down” management model led by governments. You can see this model at work in NASA and in the various military programs that the US government put forth during the Cold War. In the Soviet Union, which had no civilian program, all of the critical technological developments came out of state-run military design bureaus. This is largely the model that China has adopted. China has become a technocratic space power through a state-funded and mostly military-run space program. The question now is whether conditions in the emerging space environment are going to be the same as they were during the Cold War.
My argument is that they are not likely to be the same. Instead, what we’re seeing in space today is a changing set of dynamics. Around 2000, the preponderance of space spending shifted from government space programs to commercial space programs, and that trend has accelerated over the last two decades. Now, three-quarters of the revenue generated in space comes from commercial systems. In addition, the majority of satellites and other spacecraft in orbit are no longer owned by governments. There is a similar shift in the nature of the actors in space towards many more commercial actors, and many smaller countries are getting involved in space, instead of just two superpowers.
The dynamics of innovation are also changing. One of the critical factors evident in space technology development is the role of commercial space start-ups. In certain countries, in particular the United States, there has been a combination of factors that have allowed some of these start-ups to become industry-wide leaders, even though they started as relatively small companies with very little funding.
First, they have had access to US private venture capital markets. Second, they have tapped into an existing educated work force. Third, they have used an already advanced technological infrastructure that has allowed companies to quickly move from prototypes to full-scale production of various space technologies. Finally, they have benefited from a legal system in the United States that has protected their intellectual property and a tax system that has prevented the government from seizing the assets of these companies once they have become successful. This whole complex of factors is called an “innovation hub.”
While these conditions exist the United States, they are lacking in China and in Russia. China, for example, does not have the private venture capital markets that we have in the United States. It doesn’t have legal protections for intellectual property or a banking system that protects the profits generated by technological developments from arbitrary seizures by the government.
How have multilateral treaties, such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, had an effect on the military activities and security concerns in space? What would space’s weaponization look like?
Existing treaties in the field of space security are limited. The Outer Space Treaty bans the orbiting of weapons of mass destruction; it also bans the establishment of military bases or placement of weaponry on the moon or other celestial bodies. But, beyond that, the treaty does very little to prevent countries from developing other types of weapons that could be used either from the ground against space, from space against the ground, or in orbital space against other space objects, as long as they are not weapons of mass destruction. One problem is that existing treaties were all created during the Cold War. A variety of hyper-velocity systems, lasers, and technologies for electronic interference have emerged since that time, and some have now been tested by the leading space powers.
These technologies pose a threat not only to space assets, particularly those owned by rival militaries, but they also create risks of increasing the field of dangerous orbital debris. We saw tests of anti-satellite weapons during the Cold War, but at that time there were very few spacecraft in orbit, and the number of tests was relatively low. The Soviet Union conducted the bulk of those tests, around 20 kinetic anti-satellite tests. The United States conducted one experiment in 1985. But both countries stopped conducting kinetic anti-satellite tests because of the problem of orbital debris being generated from these tests.
Orbital debris is dangerous because it travels at 18,000 miles an hour. Even very small pieces of debris a few inches in length can destroy satellites, space stations, or anything in their path. So, in 2007, the world was shocked when China decided to conduct a kinetic anti-satellite test. It generated over 3,000 pieces of long-lasting orbital debris that will be in space for over 40 years. All satellites and all human launches now have to be very careful to track and avoid that debris in low earth orbit.
Unfortunately, India decided that it had to match China’s capability. In April of 2019, it launched its own kinetic anti-satellite test. The test generated a significant amount of debris, although most of that debris is on a trajectory to re-enter the atmosphere relatively soon.
My greatest concern about military developments among the Asian space powers is that they will create a cycle of action-reaction dynamics, where one country, such as China, develops a certain weapon, and then India decides it needs to develop a similar weapon, and then Pakistan decides it must respond to India. Or, North Korea develops a capability and South Korea says it needs the same capability. The dynamics of these regional rivalries pose a real concern if countries are not willing to step back and consider areas for arms control or mutual restraint that might prevent an arms race in space, or, much worse, the use of weapons in space.
Where do you see the competition among Asian countries eventually heading?
I am rather pessimistic about current trends, because we are seeing India, China, and Japan increase their spending on military space without any corresponding effort at regional arms control. An increase in spending on military space activities does not necessarily mean an inevitable conflict in space, but it certainly increases the chances.
International relations in space are a subset of relations among these powers on earth. So, to predict future outcomes, one would have to try to predict the future of relations among these powers in the military sector, in the economic arena, and in the political realm, in order to try to determine whether or not processes in space will inevitably lead to a more hostile environment among these countries or a more cooperative one. Fortunately, I would say there are trends in both directions. These countries trade in billions of dollars worth of goods every year, so this economic interdependence gives them an incentive to avoid conflict. But, at the same time, as we’ve seen in US relations with China, these ties can turn sour and raise the potential for conflict. Looking ahead, this is going to be an ongoing process of trying to prevent future crises and restrain national militaries if we are going to successfully avoid a space war among the major Asian powers.
Featured Image NASA Ames via Wikimedia Commons.